Arts & Culture

From A(laddin Sane) to Z(iggy Stardust): UK Class Explores David Bowie's Life, Work

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 27, 2017) A new class designed by music theorist Kevin Holm-Hudson and art historian Anna Brzyski took University of Kentucky students on a journey through the universe of the multi-talented artist David Bowie this spring semester.

This interdisciplinary class for students from UK's School of Art and Visual Studies and School of Music surveyed the 52-year career of the icon — known by many as a musical genius — not only in the field of music, but also visual arts, fashion, theatre, film and video.

While many of today's college students might not have the same familiarity of those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Holm-Hudson and Brzyski believed the sheer size and diversity of Bowie's career would be impactful to many students in various forms of the arts even in 2017.

"I think they would be inspired by his terrific, creative vitality and eclectic career. He was forever curious and investigating and learning, and he applied that in his music and in his art throughout his life," said Holm-Hudson, associate professor of music theory.

Born David Robert Jones in London on Jan. 8, 1947, Bowie began playing the saxophone at 13. Though he found success with the song "Space Oddity" in 1969, it wasn't until 1972 that he become a pop superstar as Bowie took on the persona of the fantastical sci-fi character Ziggy Stardust and released his concept album "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." After Ziggy, came "Aladdin Sane" which cemented the artist's glam rock style with a record cover of Bowie with a bolt of colorful lightning across his face. Bowie's first American No. 1 single, "Fame," which he co-wrote with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon, would follow soon after in 1975.

Considered by many as the "original pop chameleon," Bowie went on to have a long music career anticipating changes in the industry and starting trends with everything from his video concepts and his use of sound manipulation to his ever-changing personas that opened the doors for such future artists as Madonna, Prince and Lady Gaga. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Most fans could tell from his music career and the characters he created on stage, Bowie's talents weren't limited to music. A successful actor, Bowie starred in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" in 1976 and earned critical acclaim for his turn on Broadway in "The Elephant Man" in 1980. In 1986, Bowie found a new generation of fans when he starred in the cult classic "Labyrinth." The artist continued to go from acting to music and back again for another decade.

But what many may not realize is Bowie was also a visual artist and collector. Often he would create visual art almost in tandem with his music. Bowie even reviewed work and interviewed visual artists like Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons for Modern Painter magazine. One of the largest marks he made in the art world may have been when he took part in a major art history hoax by helping invent the 20th-century American artist "Nat Tate" with a Modern Painter colleague.

It is this wide array of talents and Bowie's proclivity for collaboration that made his work such a great subject of study for Holm-Hudson and Brzyski. In addition to the vast subject matter, the faculty members helped mimic the artist's own work dynamics with the class by having approximately the same number of students from art as from music, as well as undergraduate versus graduate level studies.

"As much as possible we basically compelled these students to work together," Holm-Hudson said.

And collaboration is something that Bowie was known for himself. "David Bowie was not necessarily the author of all aspects of his work. He collaborated extensively with visual artists, with fashion designers, with directors, etc.," said Brzyski, professor of art history. "This is something I think that the students will take away. If you are ambitious, if you want to make something big, you have to think in terms of teams of creators, rather than the sole artist doing his or her thing."

By exposing students to the diverse work of Bowie, the professors of this first interdisciplinary course in the College of Fine Arts, hoped the class of music and art students would gain new perspectives and find ways to expand their own creative thinking in an ever-evolving, more collaborative artistic world.

The idea paid off as students from each side learned new ways to look at the works by Bowie, and also their own.

"The blend of music and art students has been really fantastic in this class. I've learned a lot from it because I always focus on the visual aspects — naturally that is what I notice the most. I can pick out of a lot of symbols, a lot of different things that are going on," said art studio senior Delany Bal, of Morgantown, West Virginia, who now says she approaches her own work more universally. "In working with another student in my group project who is all music, he hears all these audible patterns, these patterns in the sounds, that correspond directly with all the visual imagery that I may have never noticed before."

Music theory graduate student Ward Francis, of Cary, North Carolina, agreed, "I never thought of David Bowie as someone who used a lot of symbolism or brought in a lot of other references into his work. But now through this class, I am able to see all of that symbolism — how detailed he is and everything that he brings in. Whole worlds that I never experienced (before). It really is quite incredible to see his own diversity and to see he was very much a self-made man."

Understanding more about all these elements of Bowie's work and looking at them through both a music and art lens has been a learning experience for even the faculty, especially as new work from the artist comes to light after the release of his last album and death in January 2016. There literally was something new to hear or see in almost every class meeting for all participants, whether it was never before seen work by Bowie or learning new concepts in music theory and the visual arts. 

"I think that this was a real eye-opener for them. It was for me as well, because I have never taken a music theory class," Brzyski said. "I have been blown away. It has been a really fascinating trip, likewise I think for our students."

In the end, Brzyski, Holm-Hudson and students in the class think future courses on Bowie would be beneficial where they could explore more deeply the individual eras of the artist's life and his impact on the arts and society. 

But for now, Holm-Hudson is happy to know that he helped shatter boundaries for these students in how they approach their work. "I hope it inspires their creativity, because Bowie was an artist who did not recognize limits."